The Fire Of The Forge by Georg Ebers
The little Pfinzing castle in Schweinau was neither spacious nor splendid, but it was Fran Christine's favourite place of abode.
The heat of summer found no entrance through the walls--three feet in thickness--of the ancient building. Early in the morning and at evening it was pleasant to stay in the arbour, a room open in the front, extending the whole length of the edifice, where one could breathe the fresh air even during rainy weather. It overlooked the herb garden, which was specially dear to its mistress, for it contained roses, lilies, pinks, and other flowers; and part of the beds, after being dug by the gardener, who had charge of the kitchen garden in the rear, were planted and tended by her own hand.
The hour between sunrise and mass was devoted to this work, in which Eva was to help her, and it would afford her much information; for her aunt raised many plants which possessed healing power. Some of the seeds or bulbs had been brought from foreign lands, but she was perfectly familiar with the virtues of all. Schweinau afforded abundant opportunity to use them, and the nurses in the city hospital, and the leech Otto, and other physicians, as well as many noble dames in the neighbourhood who took the place of a physician among their peasants and dependents, applied to Fran Christine when they needed certain roots, leaves, berries, and seeds for their sick. Nor did the monks and nuns, far and near, ever come to her for such things in vain.
True, the life at Castle Schweinau was by no means so quiet as the one which Eva had hitherto loved.
When she accepted the invitation she knew that, if she shared all her aunt's occupations, she would not have even a single half hour of her own; but this was not her first visit here, and she had learned that Frau Christine allowed her entire liberty, and required nothing which she did not offer of her own free will.
When she saw the matron, after the mass and the early repast which her husband shared with her before going to the city, visit the aged widows of the crusaders in the little institution behind the kitchen garden and inspect and regulate the work of the Beguines, she often wondered where this woman, whose age was nearer seventy than sixty, found strength for all this, as well as the duties which followed. First there were orders to give in the kitchen that the principal meal, after the vesper bells had rung, should always win from the master of the house the "Couldn't be better," which his wife heard with the same pleasure as ever. Then, after visiting the wash-house, the bleachcry, the linen presses, the cellar, the garret, and even the beehives to see that everything was in order, and emerging from the hands of the maid as a well-dressed noblewoman, she received visit after visit. Members of the patrician families of Nuremberg arrived; monks and nuns on various errands for their cloisters and their poor; gentlemen and ladies from ecclesiastical and secular circles, in both city and country, among them frequently the most aristocratic attendants of the Reichstag; for she numbered the Burgrave and his wife among her friends, and when questioned about the Nuremberg women, the Burgrave Frederick mentioned her as second to none in ability, shrewdness, and kindness of heart.
Both he and his worthy wife sometimes sought her in the sphere of occupation which consumed the lion's share of her time and strength--the superintendence of the Schweinau hospital. True, she often let days elapse without entering it; but if anything went wrong and her assistance was desirable or necessary in serious cases, she remained there until late at night, or even until the following morning.
At such times even the most distinguished visitors were sent home with the message that Frau Christine could not leave the sick.
The Burgrave and his wife were the only persons permitted to follow her into the hospital, and they had probably gained the privilege of speaking to her there because they were among its most liberal supporters, and three of their sons wore the cross of the Knights Hospitaller, and often spent weeks there, as the rule of the order prescribed, in nursing the sufferers.
Women also had the right to enter the hospital to be cured of the wounds inflicted by the scourge or the iron of the executioner.
Each sufferer was to be nursed there only three days, but Frau Christine took care that no one to whom such treatment might be harmful should be put out. The Honourable Council was obliged, willing or unwilling, to defray the necessary expense. The magistrate had many a battle to fight for these encroachments, but he always found a goodly majority on the side of the hospital and his wife. If the number of those who required longer nursing increased too rapidly they did not spare their own fine residence.
The hospital and the hope of being allowed to help within its walls had brought Eva to Schweinau. The experiences of the past few days had swept through the peace of her young soul like a tempest, overthrowing firmly built structures and fanning glimmering sparks to flames. Since her quiet self-examination in the room of the city clerk, she had known what she lacked and what duty required her to become. The bond which united her to her saint and the Saviour still remained, but she knew what was commanded by him from whom St. Clare's mission also came, what Francis of Assisi had enjoined upon his followers whose experiences had been like hers.
They were to strive to restore peace to their perturbed souls by faithful toil for their brothers and sisters; and what toil better suited a feeble girl like herself than the alleviation of her unhappy neighbour's suffering? The harder the duties imposed upon her in the service of love, the better. She would set to work in the hope of making herself the true, resolute woman which her mother, with the eyes of the soul, had seen her fragile child become; but she could imagine nothing more difficult than the tasks to be fulfilled here. This was the real fierce heat of the forge fire to which the dead woman had wished to entrust her purification and transformation. She would not shun, but hasten to it. While her lover was wielding the sword she, too, had a battle to fight. She had heard from Biberli that Heinz wished to undergo the most severe trials. This was noble, and her enthusiastic nature, aspiring to the loftiest goal, was filled with the same desire. Eager to learn how they would bear the test, she scanned her young shoulders and gazed at the burden which she intended to lay upon them.
When, the year before, her aunt took her to the hospital for the first time, she had returned home completely unnerved. She had not even had the slightest suspicion that there was such suffering on earth, such pain amongst those near her, such depravity amongst those of her own sex. What comparison was there between what Els had done for her gentle, patient mother, or what she would do for old Herr Casper, who lay in a soft bed--it had been shown to her as something of rare beauty, of ebony and ivory--and the task of nursing these infamous gallows-birds bleeding from severe wounds, and these depraved sick women? But if God's own Son gave up His life amidst the most cruel suffering for sinful humanity, how dared she, the weak, erring, slandered girl, who had no goodness save her passionate desire to do what was right, shrink from helping the most pitiable of her neighbours? Here in the hospital at Schweinau lay the heavy burden which she wished to take upon herself.
She desired it also in order to maintain the bond which had united her to the Saviour. She would be constantly reminded here of his own words, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." To become a bride of Jesus Christ and, closely united to Him in her inmost soul, await the hour when He would open His divine arms to her, had seemed the fairest lot in life. Now she had pledged herself in the world to another, and yet she did not wish to give up her Saviour. She desired to show Him that though she neither could nor would resign her earthly lover, her heart still throbbed for the divine One as tenderly as of yore. And could He who was Love incarnate condemn her, when He saw how, without even being permitted to hope that her lover would find his way back to her, she clung with inviolable steadfastness to her troth, though no one save He and His heavenly Father had witnessed her silent vow?
She belonged to Heinz, and he--she knew it--to her. Even though later, after all the world had acknowledged her innocence, the walls of convent and monastery divided them, their souls would remain indissolubly united. If there should be no meeting for them here below, in the other world the Saviour would lead them to each other the more surely, the more obediently they strove to fulfil His divine command. As Heinz desired to take up the cross in imitation of Christ she, too, would bear it. It was to be found beside the straw pallets of the wounded criminals. The fulfilment of every hard duty which she voluntarily performed seemed like a step that brought her nearer to the Saviour, and at the same time to the union with her lover, even though in another world.
The first request she made to her aunt on the way to mass, early in the morning of the first day of her stay in Schweinau, was an entreaty for permission to work in the hospital. It was granted, but not until the eyes of the experienced woman, ever prompt in decision, had rested with anxious hesitation upon the beautiful face and exquisite lithe young figure. The thought that it would be a pity for such lovely, pure, stainless girlish charms to be used in the service of these outcasts had almost determined her to utter a resolute "No"; but she did not do it; nay, a flush of shame crimsoned her face as her eyes rested on the image of the crucified Redeemer which stood beside the road leading to the little village church; for whom had He, the Most High, summoned to His service and deemed specially worthy of the kingdom of heaven? The simple-hearted, the children, the adulterers, the sinners and publicans, the despised, and the poor! No, no, it would not degrade the lovely child to help the miserable creatures yonder, any more than it did the rarest plant which she raised in her herb garden when she used it to heal the hurts of some abandoned wretch.
And besides, with what deep loathing she herself had gone to the hospital at first, and how fully conscious of her own infinite superiority she had returned from amongst these depraved beings to the outdoor air.
Yet how this feeling, which had stirred within her heart, gradually changed!
During her closer acquaintance with the poor and the despised, the nature and work of Christ first became perfectly intelligible to her; for how many traits of simple, self-sacrificing readiness to help, what touching contentment and grateful joy in the veriest trifle, what childlike piety and humble resignation even amidst intolerable suffering, these unfortunates had shown! Nay, when she had become familiar with the lives of many of her protegees and learned how they had fallen into the hands of the executioner and reached Schweinau, she had asked herself whether, under similar circumstances, the majority of those who belonged to her own sphere in life would not have found the way there far more speedily, and whether they would have endured the punishment inflicted half so patiently or with so much freedom from bitterness and rebellion against the decrees of the Most High. She had discovered salutary sap in many a human plant that had at first seemed absolutely poisonous; where she had shrunk from touching such impurity, violets and lilies had bloomed amidst the mire. Instead of holding her head haughtily erect, she had often left the hospital with a sense of shame, and it was long since she had ceased to use the proud privilege of her rank to despise people of lower degree. If sometimes tempted to exercise it, the impulse was roused far more frequently by those of her own station, who were base in mind and heart, than by the sufferers in the hospital.
She had become very modest in regard to herself, why should she wake to new life the arrogance now hushed in Eva's breast?
Much secret distress of mind and anguish of soul had been endured by the poor child, who yesterday had opened her whole heart to her, when she went to rest in her chamber. How lowly she felt, how humble was the little saint who recently had elevated herself above others only too quickly and willingly! It would do her good to descend to the lowest ranks and measure her own better fate by their misery. She who felt bereaved could always be the giver in the hospital, and she felt with subtle sympathy what attracted Eva to her sufferers.
The magistrate's wife was a religious matron, devoted to her Church, but in her youth she had been by no means fanatical. The Abbess Kunigunde, her younger sister, however, had fought before her eyes the conflict of the soul, which had finally sent the beautiful, much-admired girl within convent walls. No one except her quiet, silent sister Christine had been permitted to witness the mental struggle, and the latter now saw repeated in her young niece what Kunigunde had experienced so many years before. Difficult as it had then been for her to understand the future abbess, now, after watching many a similar contest in others, it was easy to follow every emotion in Eva's soul.
During a long and happy married life, in which year by year mutual respect had increased, the magistrate and his wife had finally attained the point of holding the same opinions on important questions; but when Herr Berthold returned from the city, and finding Eva already at the hospital, told his wife, at the meal which she shared with him, that from his point of view she ought to have strenuously opposed her niece's desire, and he only hoped that her compliance might entail no disastrous consequences upon the excitable, sensitive child, the remarkable thing happened that Frau Christine, without as usual being influenced by him, insisted upon her own conviction.
So it happened that this time the magistrate was robbed of the little nap which usually followed the meal, and yet, in spite of the best will to yield, he could not do his wife the favour of allowing himself to be convinced. Still, he did not ask her to retract the consent which she had once given, so Eva was permitted to continue to visit the hospital.
The nurse, a woman of estimable character and strong will, would faithfully protect her whatever might happen. Frau Christine had placed the girl under her special charge, and the Beguine Hildegard, a woman of noble birth and the widow of a knight who had yielded his life in Italy for the Emperor Frederick, received her with special warmth because she had a daughter whom, just at Eva's age, death had snatched from her.
Yet the magistrate would not be soothed. Not until he saw from the arbour, whilst the dessert still remained on the table; Cordula riding up on horseback did he cease recapitulating his numerous objections and go to meet the countess.
To his straightforward mind and calm feelings the most incomprehensible thing had been Frau Christine's description of the soul-life of her sister and her niece. He knew the terrible impressions which even a man could not escape amongst the rabble in the hospital, and had used the comparison that what awaited Eva there was like giving a weak child pepper.
As Countess Cordula, aided by the old man's hand, swung herself from the saddle of her spirited dappled steed, he thought: "If it were she who wanted to tend our sick rascals instead of the delicate Eva, I wouldn't object. She'd manage Satan himself whilst my little godchild was holding intercourse with her angels in heaven."
In the arbour Cordula explained why she had not come before; but her account told the elderly couple nothing new.
When she went to see Ernst Ortlieb in the watch-tower that morning he had already been taken to the Town Hall. No special proceedings were required, since he was his own accuser, and many trustworthy witnesses deposed that he had been most grossly irritated--nay, as his advocate represented, had wounded the tailor in self-defence. Yet Ernst Ortlieb could not be dismissed from imprisonment at once, because the tailor's representative demanded a much larger amount of blood-money than the court was willing to grant. The wound was not dangerous to life, but still prevented his leaving his bed and appearing in person before his judges. The candle-dealer was nursing him in his own house and instigating him to make demands whose extravagance roused the judges' mirth. As after a tedious discussion Meister Seubolt still insisted upon them, the magistrates from the Council and the Chief of Police, who composed the court, advised Herr Ernst to have the sentence deferred and recognise the tailor's claim that his case belonged to the criminal court. Out of consideration for the citizens and the excited state of the whole guild of tailors, it seemed advisable to avoid any appearance of partiality, yet in that case the self-accuser must submit to imprisonment until the sentence was pronounced. This delay, however, was of trivial importance; for Herr Pfinzing had promised his brother-in-law that his cause should be considered and settled on the following day.
Herr Berthold had told his wife all this soon after his return, and added, with much admiration of the valiant fellow's steadfastness, that Biberli, Sir Heinz Schorlin's servant, had again been subjected to an examination by torture and was racked far more severely than justice could approve.
The countess reported that after her friend's father had been taken back to the watch-tower a few hours before, she had found him in excellent spirits.
True, the Burgrave von Zollern had not come to visit him in person, like many "Honourables" and gentlemen, but he had sent his son Eitelfritz to enquire how he fared, and the prisoner was occupied with the petition which he wished to send the sovereign the next day through Meister Gottlieb von Passau, the Emperor Rudolph's protonotary. He had told Cordula, with a resolute air, that it contained the charge that Sir Heinz Schorlin had found his way into his house at night, and would not even suffer her to finish her entreaty to omit the accusation. "And now," the countess added mournfully, "I urge you, to whom the young girl is dear, to consider the pitiable manner in which, by her own father's folly, Eva's name will be on the tongues of the whole court, and what the gossips throughout the city will say about the poor child in connection with such an accusation."
Frau Pfinzing sighed heavily, and rose, but her husband, who perceived her intention, stopped her with the remark that it would be useless to go that day, for the sun was already setting and the watchtower was closed at nightfall.
This induced the matron to return to her seat; but she had scarcely touched the easy-chair ere she again rose and told the servant to saddle the big bay. She would ride to the city on horseback this time; the bearers moved too slowly. Then turning to her husband, she said gaily:
"I thank you for the excuse you have made for me, but I cannot use it in this case. My foolish brother must on no account make the charge which will expose his daughter; it would be a serious misfortune were I to arrive too late. What is the use of being the wife of the imperial magistrate, if a Nuremberg drawbridge cannot be raised for me even after sunset? If the petition has already gone, I must see Meister Gottlieb. True, it was not to be sent until to-morrow, but there is nothing of which we are more glad to rid ourselves than the disagreeable transactions from which we shrink. Give me a pass for the warder, Pfinzing; and you, Countess, excuse me; it is you who send me away."
Whilst the maid brought her headkerchief and her cloak, and the magistrate in a low tone told he servant to have his horse ready, too, Frau Christine asked Cordula to bring Eva from the hospital, if she felt no disgust at the sight of common people suffering from wounds.
"The huts of our wood-cutters, labourers, and fishermen look cleaner, it is true, than the hovels of the charcoal burners and quarrymen in the Montfort forests and mountains; yet none of them are perfumed with sandal-wood and attar of roses, and the blow of the axe which gashes one of our wood-cutter's flesh presents a similar spectacle to the wounds which your criminals bring with them to Schweinau. And let me tell you, I am the leech in Montfort, and unless death is near, and the chaplain accompanies me bearing the sacrament, I often go alone with the manservant, the maid, or the pages who carry my medicines. Since I grew up I have attended to our sick, and I cannot tell you how many fractures, wounds, hurts, and fevers I have cured or seen progress to a fatal end. I stand godmother to nearly all the newborn infants in our villages and hamlets. The mothers whom I nurse insist upon it. There are almost as many Cordulas as girls on the Montfort estates, and in many a hut there are two or three of them. Michel the fisherman has a Cordula, a Cordel, and a Dulla. Therefore it follows that I am accustomed to severe wounds, though my heart often aches at the sight of them. I know how to bandage as well as a barber, and, if necessary, can even use the knife."
"I thought so," cried the magistrate, much comforted. "Set my delicate little Eva an example if her courage fails; or, what would be still better, if you see that the horrible business goes too much against the grain, persuade her to give up work which requires stronger hands and a less sensitive nature. But there are the horses already. I want to go to the city, too, Christel, and it's lucky that I don't have to go alone at night."
"So said the man who jumped in to save somebody from drowning," replied Fran Christine laughing: "It's lucky it happened, because I was just going to take a bath!" But it pleased her to have her husband's companionship, and she did not approach her horse until he had examined the saddle-girth and the bridle with the utmost care.
Before putting her foot in the stirrup, she told the old housekeeper to take Countess von Montfort to the hospital and commend her to the special care of Sister Hildegard. She would call for Cordula and Eva on her return from the city; but they must not wait for her should the strength of either fail. She had ordered a sedan-chair to be kept ready for her niece at the hospital. A second one would be at the countess's disposal.
"That's what I call foresight!" cried the magistrate laughing. "Only, my dear countess, see that our little saint doesn't attempt anything too hard. Her pious heart would run her little head against the wall if matters came to that and, like the noble Moorish steeds, she would drop dead in her tracks rather than stop. Such a delicate creature is like a lute. When the key is raised higher and higher the string snaps, and we want to avoid that. With you, my young heroine----"
"There is no danger of that kind," Cordula gaily protested. "This instrument is provided with metal strings; the tone is neither sweet nor musical, but they are durable."
"Good, firm material, such as I like," the magistrate declared. Then he helped his wife mount her horse, placed the bridle in her left hand, looked at the saddle-girth again, and, spite of his corpulence, swung himself nimbly enough on his strong steed. Then, with Frau Christine, he trotted after the torch-bearers towards the city.